Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Decision to be Fantastic

Editor's note: This essay was written as a final paper for my course on The Fantastic as Place at Stony Brook University. One of the questions asked the students to engage with common expectations about fantasy literature, and how the semester's texts engaged with those expectations. Ali chose a personal way of responding to the question, and I was impressed enough by the clarity and honesty of her writing to ask if we could reprint it here. I'm delighted that she agreed, and I hope you enjoy her thoughts as much as I did. -Kat


My decision to take this class was driven by a mixture of the convenience of the timeslot and an inexplicable whim to learn more about Fantasy. I had never been particularly interested in Fantasy novels in the past. Although I had been a Harry Potter enthusiast in elementary school, after the third or fourth installment in the series I found my attentions wandering. Instead of locking myself in my room until I finished reading, I would listen lazily to the book tapes on long road trips with my parents. By college, my fascination with Harry Potter had run completely dry, and I couldn’t even muster the strength to rent the movies on Verizon FiOS. Aside from Harry Potter, my experiences with Fantasy had been scarce. I had heard arguments that Fantasy writing revolves around escapism, an urge to—for the length of a book, at least—escape the muck of ordinary life and partake in a mindless orgy of magic and mysticism. Although this seemed vaguely tempting, I thought I might do better by focusing on books modeled after reality because it would make me smarter and more grounded—this is also why I sometimes wear glasses. Part of me expected this class to be easy, subconsciously I assumed that interpreting Fantasy literature couldn’t be very difficult because there wouldn’t be much to analyze. But by immersing myself in the world of the fantastic this semester, I found my initial impressions of the genre in a constant state of collapse. What I was left with was a vast landscape of opportunity so much greater than I could ever have imagined.

Every book we discussed this semester taught me something different about Fantasy: dispelling my initial thoughts about the genre and overturning rules set in place by different Fantasy novels, while still supporting the overarching purpose of the genre through language and imagery and plot. Welcome to Bordertown, the collection of short stories we read at the beginning of the semester, opens up a fantastic world wherein the problems of the real world still resonate. In War for the Oaks, Emma Bull provides an example of a scenario in which the fantastic is layered on top of the real world. A dog transforms into a man, an ordinary fountain is suddenly a glaistig. The ordinary world is infused with mythology and magic. With Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente reveals a dark, erotic side to the genre of Fantasy. The idea of a Fantastic place being sexually transmitted proves to be disturbing, inventive and, ultimately, compelling. Locke and Key, the graphic novel written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez, portrays Fantasy in a format entirely different from the other books we had read this semester. In The City and the City, by presenting the reader with a complex world rooted in reality but still somehow fantastic and extraordinary, China MiƩville is able to address issues that exist in real cities.

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere delineates the growth of an ordinary man into an extraordinary hero. In Neverwhere, Gaiman introduces the character of Richard, a man who would be best described as content in his ordinary life, into London Below—a world full of danger and excitement and wonder. Through Richard’s journey, Gaiman expresses the belief that the world is only as fantastic as your imagination will allow. Although Richard does not realize it until the conclusion of the novel, it is understood that once Richard found himself in the world of London Below, there was no going back. After only a few days back in his life in London Above, which has improved exponentially since the beginning of the novel, Richard finds himself longing to return to London Below, the place he risked his life to escape.

Rereading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone transported me back to my childhood, to that magical time when my mind was still gaping open to the wonders of the world and I would run around my back yard in a purple bathrobe, pointing a gnarled stick at trees and shouting, “Expelliarmus!” At the same time, I was able to look at the book from a more analytical and informed perspective. Scenes that foreshadowed events in future novels were viewed in new light. One scene in particular, on page 126, depicts Harry feeling “a sharp, hot pain” in the scar on his forehead. This pain is something that recurs throughout the series; we later learn that this pain occurs whenever Voldemort is close. It is a link between Voldemort’s mind and Harry’s mind. After rereading the novel and listening to the class discussion, I was able to map the maturation of not only the characters in the series, but also the plot. Some of the students in the class speculated that the discrimination against the half-bloods and muggles parallels discrimination in the real world which, as obvious as it seems in retrospect, I had never thought of before.

In The Magicians, Lev Grossman creates an alternative magical world to the one presented in Harry Potter. For me, The Magicians was the easiest book to relate to of all the books we read this semester, as it addressed a lot of the emotions I am going through as a student in college: the intimidating task of figuring out what to do with myself once I’ve graduated, the struggle to find purpose and meaning and not succumb to laziness and alcoholism. Through the character of Quentin, Grossman suggests you cannot use magic or Fantasy as an escape from your problems in the real world; your problems will follow you wherever you go.

As I read the literature assigned for this class, I discovered a lot of connections between the different novels I was reading. There is a recurring theme of longing in the novels: the characters in Palimpsest long to return to the land of Palimpsest; in Neverwhere, Richard longs to return to his ordinary life in London Above for almost the entire span of the novel until the very end, when he realizes how bland his old life is in comparison to the excitement of London Below. In The Magicians, Quentin longs for something, but he is never entirely sure what it is. Complementary to the theme of longing, many of the characters in the novels we read were portrayed as unhappy or discontent in the beginning of the novels. Many of the characters that wanted to cross over into Bordertown did so to escape the misery of their regular life. In War for the Oaks, Eddi was facing the dissolution of her band as well as her relationship, and was ready to give up her dream of being a musician before the phouka entered her life. When he’s not at Hogwarts, Harry Potter lives in a stairwell.

Another recurring theme in the different books was the theme of “unseeing,” touched upon most heavily in The City and the City. Reading about the process of unseeing reminded me of the separation between London Above and London Below in Neverwhere, and the inability of residents of London Above to fully register residents of London Below. This theme of unseeing communicates to a real-world issue so prevalent in city life: the conscious decision to ignore problems such as homelessness and poverty, and pretend that they do not exist. It seems that the books speak not only to the real world, but also to each other—in different languages that everyone can understand.

One of the most eye-opening experiences I had this semester was when I had to write my own short story for the first paper assignment. I chose this assignment because it seemed fun and easy and it incorporated my passion for writing. I hadn’t written anything that might be classified as Fantasy since fourth grade, when I used Vocabulary exercises, which we read in front of the class, as an opportunity to build a fan base for my own version of “The Magic School Bus,” which was specially tailored to the members of my class and completely devoid of any educational or scientific information. Looking back, I don’t think I realized I had been writing Fantasy. Books were books and words were words and I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it. My experience writing this Fantasy story, over a decade later, was very different.

Yes, in writing Fantasy, you can do whatever you want. But there are still rules. Even in the farthest reaches of imagination, our brains follow the tenets of logic. I couldn’t just throw a character into a fantastic place; I had to find a way to put him there. And on a deeper level, it all had to mean something. Writing a Fantasy story was a lot more difficult than I had expected it to be but, at the same time, I couldn’t put my pen down. By the end of the story I had effectively doubled the maximum word count of the assignment and as I trimmed the story to an acceptable length it felt like I was cutting off my own limbs.

While in my other classes a lot of the books I had to read seemed to drag on and on and on...and on, I found myself staying up until sunrise just so I could read about Richard slaying the beast, or Eddi battling the Queen of Air and Darkness. I found that Fantasy has a force of magnetism to it, an irresistible pull. It finds heroes in the most ordinary and relatable of characters. It forces you to unlearn boundaries, to imagine new universes, to feel magical and capable and fantastic. And to my abashment, I discovered that it also has symbolism and meaning, parallels to real-world problems, and intricate solutions. It seems that in my quickness to judge the genre of Fantasy, I violated the age-old adage that advises against judging books by their covers. According to Grossman, "All fiction is fantasy. Fantasy is the rule, not the exception. If anything, it's realist literature that pretends to be real. Fantasy doesn't pretend." The decision to be fantastic does not necessarily represent a desire to escape the problems of reality but, more often than not, a desire to confront them in a world of infinite possibility.

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